It might just be the weirdest mash-up in the history of weird mash-ups. Even typing the words out is surreal, but here goes: Zeal & Ardor combine black metal with black spiritual music from the era of American slavery. The band is the brainchild of Swiss-American musician Manuel Gagneux, who posed this question as the conceptual basis for the project: What if American slaves had embraced Satan instead of Jesus?
If it sounds like something that started as a dare, that's because it did. About three years ago, Gagneux posted to a 4chan message board asking which two genres of music he should try to splice together. The challenge? To write a song in 30 minutes combining said genres. When some racist meatball suggested fusing black metal with "n*gger music," Gagneux — who is black — let the hate slide but took the hater up on his suggestion. And he didn't stop at just one song. The resulting album, Devil Is Fine, has since become both a critical darling and a lightning rod for controversy.
Not that Gagneux is sweating it. Zeal & Ardor recently played to a packed house at Holland's Roadburn Festival when the power cut out during their set. "But 800 people started singing 'Devil Is Fine,'" Gagneux tells Revolver. "It was one of the most beautiful moments of the tour. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."
REVOLVER Zeal & Ardor started after you solicited suggestions on a 4chan message board for splicing disparate genres together. What was the appeal of that approach?
MANUEL GAGNEUX Something about not having an influence on what you're gonna do next is super exciting to me. I kinda like challenges … Also, the very idea of creating something new that sounds good was exciting.
So at that point, you didn't have a specific direction in mind…
No, no. I was actually just killing time, and I thought that would be a good way to do it. [Laughs] It was not exactly a master plan type of thing.
And then someone on the message board suggested you combine black metal with what they called "nigger music." So you can kind of credit the idea behind Zeal & Ardor to a racist…
I guess so, yeah.
How do you feel about that?
Indifferent. To be upset at that point and say, "Oh, you've hurt my feelings!" would pretty much be playing into their hands. The ultimate fuck-you is actually making something good out of such a silly suggestion. [Laughs] So I feel fine about it, I guess.
You turned a negative into a positive.
Yeah! It's a hippie thing to do, isn't it?
Absolutely. Do you consider yourself a hippie?
No, no. I don't consider myself a negative person, but I would never go as far as to say I'm a hippie. [Laughs]
In describing Zeal & Ardor's music you've said, "Imagine if American slaves embraced Satan instead of Christianity." What got you thinking along those lines?
Well, two things: Firstly, the black metal aspect of it and how the Norwegian people reacted to the Christianity imposed upon them. Secondly, it struck me as odd that American slaves adopted the beliefs of their oppressors and masters in their very personal music. If they sung the spirituals truly for themselves, it's hard to believe that they incorporated Christianity into it. So [embracing Satan] seemed like an interesting form of rebellion, at least in my head.
Were you interested in Satanism prior to starting Zeal & Ardor?
Yeah, just from being a metalhead and an edgy teen. [Laughs] I'm just a fan of counterculture in general, so having a counterculture within religion was really, really interesting to me. So I got deeply involved in reading all these odd books, like the Lesser Key Of Solomon and The Book of Abramelin.
Do you consider yourself a Satanist?
I subscribe to some aspects of modern LaVeyan Satanism, but there's silly stuff in there like "No mercy for the weak," that I can't really get with. So, no — I don't think I would. I'm a determinist, I guess. I'm not a spiritual person at all. I like the idea of being in touch with the impulses that you suppress in yourself, but I don't believe in the horned figure or anything.
To what extent are you personally invested in your lyrics versus just playing a character?
Well… I think music is a kind of theater, isn't it? I'd say I play a character. I'm not an angry person who yells at other people to burn other people, so to say that I extend myself into my lyrics would be a stretch. [Laughs] I'm a happy camper. To me, music is catharsis. I get to live out weird thoughts and emotions that I have — and as a result of living them out, I get to be all happy and balanced and chipper. [Laughs]
The song "Devil Is Fine" has an obvious spiritual quality. Do you consider it to be religious in any sense?
It's kind of a hodgepodge. It's got the classic "Let's invoke Satan" thing, but if you look at Satan in the modern sense — as your innermost longings and impulses—the devil is the thing that you actually want to pursue. There's also the dual baptisms of Christianity. The first is by water, and the second is by flame — which God will perform upon you when you're dead. That's the "we'll go home to the flames" part. So there's a little something for everyone. [Laughs]
What would you like listeners to get out of Zeal & Ardor?
I'd prefer not to be able to choose. I'm shit at predicting how people will react to something, so for me to choose what they get out of it would probably be a horrible decision. [Laughs] Music is inherently personal. If you interpret one of the songs in a way that I didn't intend, who am I to say that it's wrong? By that point, it's not my song anymore. It belongs to the listener.
So it's yours while you're working on it, but it belongs to everyone else after it's out in the world?
Yeah. I can sign that document. [Laughs]
Critical response to the album has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Was that a surprise to you?
It has been a surprise. I didn't really expect anything like this to happen. I thought I'd put it up on Bandcamp and it would become just another weird, obscure thing that would mold away in the annals of the Internet. The fact that people actually listened to it already exceeded my expectations, so reading reviews by people who actually like it is bizarre.
You've also got black-metal purists who don't really like the fact that you're incorporating elements of other music into the genre — and then there are some folks who maybe feel that appropriating black spiritual music from the era of American slavery is in poor taste. Do either of those criticisms bother you?
No, but I have an issue with the idea of cultural appropriation because it's inherently regressive. If I were to abstain from incorporating elements that aren't from my ethnicity, I wouldn't be able to use the circle of fifths or black metal or anything that has been discovered in the classical formation of music because it's not strictly my ethnicity. For music or art in general to evolve, I think we have to free up anything and everything. Nothing should be holy.
It occurred to me that if a white guy were making this music, he'd be crucified.
I don't think he necessarily should be, though. I think it boils down to intent. If you're going to wear a Native American headdress and dance around going "woo-woo," that's cultural appropriation in a bad sense because you're mocking it. If you're actually trying to make art out of it, I think it's a commendable thing because you're incorporating something different and you're creating something new. And I don't think that act is bound by ethnicity. I can see how this would be received differently if I were white, but I'm not happy about it. I think that's sad.
You're coming over to the States in August for a handful of shows. Devil Is Fine is only 25 minutes long, so what are you playing for the rest of your set?
We have nine new songs, so there's a lot of new material that I think is kinda better [than the record]. But yeah, I couldn't stand behind a 25-minute set or playing some half-ass covers. The only fair thing is to deliver something that we feel is good.
Nine new songs — that sounds like the makings of a new album …
Well, theoretically. The next record shouldn't be 25 minutes and it should be produced in a way that people can wholeheartedly enjoy. [Laughs] But it'll be a while before something new appears.
Last but not least, do people ever ask you if you're deliberately trying to be provocative?
No, but I think that's a fair question. [Laughs] But really, I'm not. I'm just trying to do something cohesive. It's well researched. I'm not trying to just bang out something vaguely satanic or edgy. I just want to make good music. If it happens to be provocative, so be it.